The graying of the language

As baby boomers age, dictionaries list more health terms


November 23, 2003|By Fred Brock | Fred Brock,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

There have been many warnings to advertisers that their fascination with youthful consumers runs against the grain of demographics: America is graying and older people have much more money to spend than the young do.

Now, even the dictionary has weighed in, and - from "estrogen replacement therapy" to "statin" to "white-coat hypertension" - it offers little encouragement to those chasing the 18-to-49 age group.

The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, published in July, has about 10,000 new entries or definitions. For the first time, the number of new entries related to health and medicine, almost 25 percent of the total, rival those related to technology. And 30 to 40 percent of the health and medicine entries are age-related.

"The words being added to the dictionary are a fascinating barometer of what's going on in our society," said John M. Morse, the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, based in Springfield, Mass., and a subsidiary of the Encyclopedia Britannica Co.

"When I read the tea leaves in the new dictionary, what I see is, yes, the Internet is the biggest thing in the world," he added. "But aging baby boomers may be the second-biggest thing, and I don't know that the world has really quite focused on that yet."

Of course, he said, it's not just that the baby boomers are growing old and are more worried about their health. They are also concerned about the health of their aging parents.

Combing publications

One new dictionary entry is macular degeneration, a vision problem that especially affects the elderly. Joan I. Narmontas, associate editor for life science at Merriam-Webster, points out that that term has been around for a while but has been used more widely as the percentage of older people has increased.

"The term moved from medical journals to general interest magazines; that showed us that it is something that should go into a college-level dictionary," Narmontas said.

Words make it into the dictionary because editors like her comb all kinds of publications - books, newspapers, magazines - looking for terms that are entering common use. The dictionary has minor updates each year and a new edition every 10 years.

"The increase in the interest people have in medical and health-related terms is amazing," Narmontas said. "People have become more proactive in terms of their health care. There are also societal changes. Adult children are acting as caregivers, for instance. All these things have put words that were previously only in the medical lexicon into use by the average person."

She said that the first reference to statins, which are drugs used to lower cholesterol, was in 1986, but that the name was not used commonly enough to appear in the 1993 edition of the dictionary. The word has since gained wider acceptance. Male-pattern baldness also entered common use only in the last decade, she said, as a treatment for it became available. So both terms are in the new dictionary, along with: assisted living; benign prostatic hyperplasia (or enlarged prostate); clot-buster; DRG (for diagnosis related group); ginkgo biloba (a plant extract that is said to improve memory); male menopause; single-payer; stress incontinence; tertiary care; and trans fat.

Maybe it was all those ads in subway cars that helped Lasik wind up as a new word in the dictionary. It's an almost-acronym for laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis, or eye surgery to correct vision problems.

New words that are trademarks, like Viagra, require a double lookup. The famous blue pill is defined as "a preparation of the citrate of sildenafil." Only when you look up sildenafil do you learn that Viagra is used to treat erectile dysfunction. Morse said the dictionary editors weren't trying to be coy, but were adhering to limitations imposed by trademark agreements.

"This double lookup has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with trademarks," he said. The same is true of another new word, Botox, a treatment for wrinkles.

A sign to the country

While new words in the dictionary reflect language changes over the last 10 years, Morse said, the editors consider which words will have staying power and are likely to be encountered by future readers.

"What's in the dictionary is important beyond just looking up words," he said. "It's a sign - or warning - for advertisers and even politicians who have to appeal to the public. Significant changes in society create significant changes in the lexicon. And a dictionary is telling us where change is taking place."

The big change suggested by the new words, Morse says, is the final influence that the 70 million or so baby boomers will have on our society.

"They have distorted everything as they have moved along," he said. "We're about to see the last, but greatest, example of this as they become old. If you thought they were troublesome as teen-agers and obnoxious as young adults, you ain't seen nothing yet.

"The dictionary is telling us that we are going to get educated in gerontology over the next decade or so, whether we want to or not."

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